Gerstenberg led GM into downsizing
Gerstenberg, a well-liked moneyman and a top-flight executive, was kind and considerate. Just before he retired from GM at the end of 1974, Automotive News asked him whether he had any regrets.
"Just one," he said. "I've looked forward to retirement after working for 43 years, but I hate to leave all these problems to someone else."
The economy was ailing, and so were sales of cars and trucks. GM's sales fell 25 percent in 1974.
The nation had just come out of a fuel crisis, which began in late 1973 when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries halted shipments to the United States. Fears of future shocks abounded, and the industry knew vehicles had to get smaller.
At GM, that project was headed by CEO Gerstenberg — definitely not a car guy. Fortunately, his partner was President Ed Cole, one of the auto industry's all-time car experts.
And the auto community still had not adjusted to being a regulated industry. Regulation had begun in 1966.
In a profile published before he became chairman, The Wall Street Journal said of Gerstenberg, "He is considered a team player, was once described as the 'archetype GM executive' and has many friends and few enemies."
The article added that Gerstenberg got the top post because of "his strong financial background, making him the man of the hour when GM is increasingly worried about its profit margins and its ability to finance its growth internally."
Gerstenberg was upbeat in the face of adversity.
He told a New York Times reporter in November 1974, near the end of his time as chairman, that he felt good about the future. The industry was in the midst of the worst slump since the Depression, but he said: "We'll come back. We always have, and we always will."
Began at Frigidaire
Gerstenberg was born in 1909 in Little Falls, N.Y. He attended high school in Mohawk, N.Y., and graduated from the University of Michigan in 1931.
He started working for GM in 1932 as a timekeeper for the Frigidaire Division in Dayton, Ohio. He became a cost accountant and soon was transferred to the accounting department of Fisher Body in Detroit.
Gerstenberg moved to GM's central office in 1936, working his way up the financial staff. By April 1956, he was treasurer of the corporation. He later called that his most important promotion.
Gerstenberg was elected vice president of finance in 1960 and was executive vice president of finance when he was elected to the board of directors in 1967. He remained a director until 1980. From April 1970 to January 1972, he was vice chairman of the board and chairman of the finance committee.
During that period, in addition to his responsibility for the company's financial health, Gerstenberg oversaw GM's overseas operations. He became GM CEO and chairman Jan. 1, 1972.
In 1974, Gerstenberg was honored with the Brotherhood Award by the Detroit Round Table of the National Conference of Christians and Jews for his "farsighted industrial leadership" in helping Detroit and the nation respond to the economic needs of people of every religious, racial and cultural background. He helped increase hiring of minority workers and suppliers.
Retired in 1974
In 1974, the year Gerstenberg retired, the Automotive Hall of Fame gave him its Distinguished Service Citation, which recognizes an individual who has significantly improved the industry.
Gerstenberg enjoyed golf and fly-fishing, and during his retirement, he was chairman of New Detroit and an honorary trustee of Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. He was a director of several companies and was board chairman of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation from 1975 to 1982.
Gerstenberg died at age 92 in his home in Paradise Valley, Ariz., in 2002.